To be a successful writer, you must possess an unforgettable voice. This is the mysterious “knack for writing” that people talk about. It’s not just about stringing words together in a pretty way. It’s about having a voice that is powerful, unique, and unforgettable.
Cultivating a voice isn't easy, but it's possible. It lies within your power to hone, develop, and sharpen your writing voice. In this article, I'll share seven of the techniques that helped me to develop my writing voice. I’m confident they will work for you, too.
1) Give every article a laser focus.
Every article should have a focus. It needs to be about one thing. Even if you have fourteen points, the article itself should have a single, focused theme.
Let’s say you’re writing an article right now. If I were to look over your shoulder and ask, “What are you writing about?” You should be able to tell me in just a couple seconds what the article is about. No pausing, no thinking, no stopping. You know.
The article you’re reading right now has a laser focus: How to create an unforgettable writing voice.
That’s seven words. Sure, I have seven points within the article, but the article itself is about one thing.If you can state your big idea in fewer than 10 words, then you’re on the right path. Your laser focus needs to be short.
This is what successful landing pages do, too. They have a headline that explains succinctly what the product or service is all about. As an example, let me share some data from HubSpot’s roundup of successful landing pages. These landing pages are good. Each of them use a laser-focused headline to communicate the big idea -- just check out those word counts.
Having a good voice is as much about the overarching subject of your writing as it is the specific words that you use. Your voice -- strong, authentic, and unforgettable -- depends on your ability to express a single laser-focused theme.
2) Be opinionated and dangerous.
You’ll do your best writing when you write about something you feel strongly about.
I saw this in action a week ago when my friend told me he wrote the foreword to a book. I didn’t know he could write. In fact, I knew he couldn’t write, because I’d seen some of his attempts. But when I read his foreword, I was blown away. This guy killed it!
Here was the difference. The stuff I had seen him write before was content on a topic he wasn’t passionate about. The foreword that I read was a book about his hobby. He had strong feelings on the subject matter, and he let his unforgettable voice shine through.
Readers love a good opinion piece from someone who knows what they're talking about. You don’t have to be unpleasant or harsh about it, but you can certainly let people know what you think.
Writer Jeff Goins recommends that you “write something dangerous.” Caution stifles you. It totally ruins your voice. Throw some of your caution to the wind, and write something riskier that you normally would.
Always write from the first person. Few things are as unreadable as a “voice” that is from some disembodied corporate entity.
People don’t want to read what a corporation is saying when they're on your blog. They want to read what you are saying -- from one first-person individual to another.
The awkward third-person voice is one of the reasons why some corporate blogs fail often fail. Some cubicle dweller with a bachelor’s degree in English is told to “blog about our company, and oh-by-the-way, use a formal third-person voice because our editorial guidelines insist upon it.”
She tries -- she really tries.
But no one is going to read it except her parents. Because it’s boring as heck. If she decides to buck the editorial sacred writ and be herself, she might get 400X more traffic and quadruple the engagement level.
I always use a personable and first-person tone on my blog, Quicksprout.com. I do it on my site, Neilpatel.com, which is little more than a landing page for my consulting business. It’s not narcissistic; it’s strategic.
Buffer writers do this this on their blog, which is wildly successful. Buffer’s co-founder Leo Widrich has mastered the first-person storytelling voice.
So when you write, ask yourself “Is this how I talk?” If the answer is “Um, not really,” then you probably need to try again.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker had this brilliant snippet of prose regarding stories:
"Stories, more even than stars or spectacle, are still the currency of life, or commercial entertainment, and look likely to last longer than the euro."
You may not think of yourself as a “good writer,” but can you tell a story? Can you tell a story to your four year-old daughter? Can you share an anecdote at a party? Can you tell your life story to a mentor? You’re a natural storyteller, because it’s wired into our DNA.
It’s when you’re in storytelling mode that your authentic voice comes through. When you write a story, it activates your brain, as a Lifehacker article explains. And when that happens, you’re able to create a line of direct communication with your readers.
Try the “once upon a time” technique. Write those four classic words, the opener to any story, and just let it flow. It doesn’t matter whether you think your industry is boring or not. Your story can be about a business success, a personal discovery, an event that happened, or whatever.
When you edit your article, you can delete the “once upon a time” bit. What remains is a story that your audience will identify with.
5) Sit on it for a day.
After you write your article, wait a little while. Let it get cold. Let yourself forget about it. Let your mind freshen up. Then, go back and rework it.
“The first draft of anything is garbage.” Ernest Hemingway said that, not me. So you need to write quick, then edit slow. I always go back and edit the crap that I wrote the first time around so I can make it uncrappy after a day passes.
Jennifer Egan, a very good writer, said this about writing and first drafts:
"I haven't had trouble with writer's block. I think it's because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, cliched writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn't have a good voice or any voice."
In order to have a good voice, you have to edit your writing. Your rush of writing doesn’t have perfect voice its first time off the keyboard.
The best approach is to wait a day. Your subconscious mind is editing your article as you go about your other daily routines, arranging your memories while you sleep, and sharpening your ideas. When you come back to edit your rough draft a day later, you’ll be able to nail it.
6) Think about your reader while you write.
I’m going to write something in the next sentence that might sound a little touchy-feely. I was thinking about you when I wrote this article.
Don’t get weirded out. Before I wrote this article, I spent a lot of time reading other HubSpot articles. I even conducted a search to find out which of HubSpot's articles were the most wildly popular over the past six months.
The reason why I did this was because I want to find out what HubSpot readers want to know. I want to write to a person -- the HubSpot reader, the ever-learning marketing professional. I want to write this for you.
Speaking to one’s audience is half of the process of communication. Communication, whether written or spoken, consists of two symmetrical halves no matter who's doing the talking or writing. It looks like this:
I, as the writer of this article, am one of big circles. You’re the other big one. We are engaged in a cycle of communication whereby each of us gains information from the other. The challenge for me was that I had to receive your information beforehand by becoming familiar with your site. The rest of the communication cycle will go forward in the comments (if you choose).
In order to be truly successful, I try to write in such a way that my message is as direct as possible, with no interference or negative feedback. The only way I can do this is by understanding the reader.
When I write on my blog, I use a specific voice, because that’s exactly what my readers want and expect. I’ve come to know my readers really well, and I’m able to communicate with them like no one else can.
My advice is is this -- know your audience. And then write something for them.
7) Read a lot of stuff.
This final point has nothing to do with writing, and it has everything to do with writing.
Your voice will start to sound like the stuff you read. That’s a good thing, as long as you’re reading good quality stuff.
I read a lot, because I’m passionate about digital marketing, entrepreneurship, and helping other people succeed in their businesses. I read blogs like this one, plus books galore. Reading is what fuels my creativity and forms my voice. If I don’t read a lot, I don’t write well. It’s just that simple.
Here is some of the reading that helps to shape my writing voice:
Classic novels. These guys -- Dickens, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Joyce -- they knew what they were doing. Say hello to high school lit class again. You may not pull a James Joyce stream-of-consciousness technique in your next blog post, but simply reading good writing will help you develop a voice that is strong and unforgettable.
Nonfiction best sellers. If there’s a book on this list that catches my attention, I read it. A book lands on a list like the New York Times Best Sellers because it’s popular. When I read books like these, I learn what people like reading.
Really technical detailed stuff. It may be boring, but reading well-written technical posts is a powerful mental workout that will sharpen your own mind and writing voice. Do yourself a favor and dive into some deep stuff in your niche.